Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History
  • .: Phil Magness’ Blog :.

    Personal blog of Dr. Phil Magness, historian of the American Civil War and the 19th Century United States. Here I will post my thoughts and commentary on current research topics, upcoming events, and the general state of academia.
  • August 2018
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  • The problem with historical arguments from silence

    Posted By on August 3, 2018

    Historical arguments from silence are a common feature of academic work. Originally a means of dealing with historical subjects where a weak or missing evidentiary record makes direct examination of an event impossible, arguments from silence instead draw inferences from what is not said or not recorded. For example, if a historical document neglects to mention another well known and verified event that happened around the same time it was written, certain inferences may be made about the author’s likelihood of capturing that event or, alternatively, biases as a witness given the oversight. Carefully deployed, silence can be a tool of necessity in interpreting a subject where records are deficient for any number of reasons, be they accidental loss, destruction, or even the byproduct of biases in the selection of material for preservation

    Arguments from silence are accordingly common in areas of history where records are sparse. They’re also a staple line of argument in fields that utilize various iterations of critical theory to interpret the past, usually operating under the not-unfounded assumption that recorded attestations of the condition of marginalized persons (usually on lines of race, class, or gender) are less likely to have survived to the present day. This is a challenge faced by any historian, whether working in critical theory or not. But I would also argue that critical theorists are especially prone to pushing historical arguments from silence too far, effectively supplanting observed evidentiary gaps from the past with imported political ideologies from the present day.

    A closely related problem with constructing historical arguments from silence is the tactic’s tendency to heighten the epistemic biases of the historian who deploys it. Put another way, a finding of silence itself is a perceived and observational characteristic. It entails the review of existing historical materials and identifying a gap, by inference, of content that one might expect to find. In making an inferential claim from silence, a simultaneous assumption is made about the finality of the extant state of historical records. In other words, when a historian infers a strong claim about a historical figure’s actions, beliefs, or awareness from “silence” – that is to say from an omission of expected references and content in available records – she is also necessarily implying that those records encompass a representative range of that figure’s known actions, beliefs, and comments from the time period in question.

    There’s a great risk at play here in pressing an argument from perceived silence. All it takes to break that silence is a new and previously unaccounted record coming to light containing alternative or contradictory information.

    Unfortunately, many scholars invest too heavily in arguments constructed from the perceived silence of their subjects, as ascertained by viewing available materials. Doing so sets an argument up for refutation upon the discovery of contradictory information that existed outside of the scope of the originally perceived silence. An honest scholar might respond to this occurrence by legitimately changing her mind to account for the new evidence. But that’s often not what happens.

    Instead, when new primary source evidence comes to light, rather than modify their views, an alarming number of academics ignore it, resist it, downplay it, or denigrate it as “faux.” They then double down on the original argument from silence, as if nothing had changed.

    I have witnessed this pattern too many times to count, but a few examples serve to illustrate. The recent controversy over economist James M. Buchanan and segregation provides textbook case. Several scholars formed their initial impressions of Buchanan by reading Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains and assuming, largely on account of her prior scholarly “reputation” and her own claims of novelty in accessing Buchanan’s papers, that her study contained a thorough and comprehensive examination of the available source materials. As MacLean’s individual claims have been called into question (including by my own work), a number of scholars who agreed with her initial conclusions have adopted their own arguments from silence – usually to portray Buchanan as complicit in the segregationist Massive Resistance movement of 1950s Virginia.

    Thus we are told that Buchanan “failed to condemn” segregation, or that he allowed his ideas to be “used” by segregationists and is therefore morally culpable for those uses. In each case, the “evidence” for the charge is a perceived silence – the alleged absence of Buchanan saying or doing anything that would contradict the segregationist political class of the era. In the past week or so, several academics who are critical of Buchanan’s theories have explicitly adopted this “argument from silence” approach, among them the economic historians Peter Temin, Sandy Darity, and Trevon Logan.

    The problem with the perceived silence around Buchanan is it is still highly dependent upon MacLean’s own faulty historical work. These scholars are essentially assuming that MacLean did a comprehensive sweep of Buchanan’s materials and, equally important, made a faithful representation of their contents in her book. Except this isn’t the case at all. MacLean was not comprehensive – she actually missed dozens of directly pertinent archival collections and hundreds of pages of additional evidence. She also misinterpreted much of the evidence she did have – sometimes badly – and severely inflated the originality of her work in an allegedly “secret” archive that was in fact already being prepared for professional cataloging and release after Buchanan’s death. I’ll leave it to readers to search this blog if interested in specific examples, or to evaluate them in a comprehensive account here. Briefly summarized, while Buchanan’s entry into the segregation debate was infrequent given its distance from his own scholarly focus and expertise, it was also (a) far from silent and (b) generally in the opposite direction of anything MacLean claims about him.?

    So what is a scholar to do after appealing to Buchanan’s perceived silence, only to encounter evidence that this perception was mistaken? Unfortunately the aforementioned pattern is starting to take root: double down on the original claim of silence, all while ignoring or – worse – attacking and dismissing counter-evidence that MacLean missed in her original assessment.

    Curiously, this exact same pattern played out several years ago in another area of direct pertinence to my work – the history of Abraham Lincoln’s involvement in the colonization of freed slaves. A longstanding historical consensus on the colonization topic took the form of a classic argument from silence: Since Lincoln did not publicly mention colonization in his known statements and speeches after January 1, 1863, the consensus view assumed that he dropped this policy from his administration’s agenda.

    Except Lincoln didn’t actually drop colonization after January 1, 1863. He moved it into the diplomatic back channels of the State Department, where it enjoyed some insulation from the political graft and corruption that plagued the program over the preceding year. This move, the subject of several of my published works (see here), removed the program from public view while generating hundreds of pages of forgotten records on colonization negotiations over next 2 years. Very little of that evidence was known before I started digging it up with a couple of other scholars in the mid-2000s – mainly by looking in archival sources that had never really been thought of or searched before. After all, Lincoln is the most scrutinized president in American history so surely the major collections of materials from his life and presidency are known and accounted for. It turns out that they weren’t though, and in fact there are pertinent records spread out across the consular records of the State Department and the archival holdings of several foreign countries in the former British, Dutch, and Danish Caribbean empires. Due to simple previously unaccounted findings of this nature, Lincoln suddenly wasn’t silent after all, and historians since then have had to revise a longstanding assumption about his colonization programs. But as always, there’s an incorrigible segment of the profession that’s wedded to the older, earlier argument from silence. Rather than accommodate new findings and concede the earlier argument from silence was wrong, they opt to cling to the original argument from silence. They dismiss, ignore, or denigrate the new evidence.

    And thus we arrive at a dispute where one side simply isn’t interested in engaging with material that might alter its position. In asserting “silence” they’re really just asserting an appeal to stature of obsolescent arguments and the personal authority of those who made them.

    Did Buchanan support segregated school vouchers?

    Posted By on July 20, 2018

    Last summer during the peak of the Democracy in Chains scandal, Georg Vanberg brought two letters to light in which James M. Buchanan shared his private thoughts on the relationship between segregation and school vouchers. Writing to his friend Arthur Seldon, Buchanan expressed his concern about “the evils of race-class-cultural segregation that an unregulated voucher scheme might introduce.”

    The contents of the Seldon letters directly contradict a central claim of Nancy MacLean’s book, which accuses Buchanan of indifference toward the effect of vouchers upon African-American students in 1950s Virginia. Clearly, in the Seldon letters, Buchanan recognized the need for safeguards to prevent abuses of vouchers for segregationist aims. Despite their relevance, these documents were brushed aside by a number of MacLean’s defenders in the history profession on account of their date. Buchanan wrote to Seldon in 1984, some twenty-five years after the Virginia school desegregation crisis.

    Although nothing in Buchanan’s writings from the 1950s supports MacLean’s depiction of him as a complicit partner of the segregationists, her supporters saw little value in the Seldon letters. After all, couldn’t Buchanan have simply changed his mind in the intervening decades?

    It turns out we can determine the answer to this question. MacLean’s argument rests heavily upon a 1959 article by Buchanan and his UVA colleague Warren Nutter entitled “The Economics of Universal Education.” Although Nutter and Buchanan steered clear of the segregation issue in their analysis and instead only laid out an economic argument for vouchers, MacLean depicts this article as an opportunistic offering of support to the segregationist “Massive Resisters” of the period (and largely because she misinterpreted a typo in another scholar’s work ).

    As I’ve noted previously, Nutter and Buchanan actually reissued their 1959 paper in 1964 as part of a report they commissioned to assess the performance of the Virginia tuition grant program (an early voucher system arising from the 1959 debates) after 5 years in operation. As the economists’ introductory note in this second document indicated, their 1959 paper contained “minor updatings” to reflect the new report’s purposes.

    David M. Levy, who is currently working on his own study of Buchanan along with Sandra Peart, caught one of these subtle updates in the final page of the report. The 1964 version contains a new line, appended to a section in which Nutter and Buchanan discuss “non-economic reasons” for when it may be legitimate to bar a private school from participating in the voucher program. The addendum specifically recognized “the case of private schools that exclude pupils on the basis of race.”

    To add some context, this addition almost certainly reflected the events of the intervening years. Specifically, after the tuition grant program came into effect in 1959 the Virginia Education Association began aggressively lobbying to restrict its use to only segregationist purposes. The VEA’s campaign conflicted with the race-neutrality of the voucher law, but it gained a substantial following among public education interest groups. As further evidence of their anti-segregation views, the economists specifically attacked and rebutted the VEA’s position in another section of their 1964 report.

    The addendum to Nutter and Buchanan’s “Universal Education” paper is telling though as it establishes that Buchanan held the same views he later expressed in the Seldon letters at least as early as 1964. Given that he likely inserted this passage in response to the VEA’s pro-segregation antics, it is reasonable to conclude that it reflected his genuine concerns.

    Anti-voucher segregationism & the 1959 Virginia school crisis

    Posted By on June 18, 2018

    Prof. Hardy Cross Dillard

    Several months ago I wrote a lengthy post on an intriguing historical discovery. In March 1959, Charlottesville, Virginia school board attorney John S. Battle, Jr. laid out a case that school vouchers posed an existential threat to racially segregated schooling.

    Battle was an outspoken segregationist and member of the Virginia political elite. His father served as Governor of Virginia from 1950 to 1954, and his own connections extended deep into the political machine of U.S. Sen. Harry Flood Byrd, Sr. After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Battle became one of the preeminant anti-integration litigators in the commonwealth. From 1957 to the mid-1960s he was the lead counsel for the defense on dozens of school integration legal proceedings, facing off against the NAACP’s Oliver Hill.

    The voucher issue entered the fray in January 1959 following simultaneous state and federal court rulings that struck down key parts of Byrd’s segregationist “Massive Resistance” laws. These measures attempted to circumvent Brown by allowing the state government to take control of and close any public school facing federal court-ordered integration. In the fall semester of 1958, the state closed public schools in three locales facing integration, including Venable Elementary School and Lane High School in Charlottesville. Although the court strike-downs of January 19, 1959 came from cases in other counties, Battle was the lead attorney for the segregationist side in the two Charlottesville schools.

    With the simultaneous court defeats of the school closure laws, Battle turned to desperate measures to preserve the all-white schools. The Charlottesville school board convened an emergency meeting on January 26 at his law office to plan their next step and find a new way to salvage what they could of the segregationist status quo. School officials believed that they could technically comply with Brown by acquiescing to the admission of black students to the two schools in question. Battle’s plan sought to keep these numbers to the barest minimum though with a two-pronged approach. First, the school board would adopt a zoning map that intentionally assigned black neighborhoods to the existing all-black schools. Second, Venable and Lane – the white schools facing integration – would now have their enrollment strictly capped at capacity. Even if they got past the zoning map hurdle, most black students could not enroll because there weren’t enough seats in the classrooms to take them. If these de facto segregationist measures worked as intended, Battle predicted that less than a dozen black students would be able to actually enroll at the schools in question.

    The history of the voucher movement involves complex and overlapping political coalitions. After the court rulings, Byrd urged his allies to continue the fight by forcing a showdown with the federal courts and keeping the schools closed. Hardline segregationist “Massive Resisters” in the assembly agreed to hold the line, although this also meant foregoing another semester of public education if not longer in the affected locations (with white students, of course, being taught at private “segregation academies” in the interim). Despite Byrd’s signals to his allies, the court rulings exposed a crack in the Democratic Party’s political coalition. School closures made many parents and business-minded legislators uneasy, even if they still conceptually favored segregationTo get the schools open again they had to outflank the “Massive Resisters” by breaking the previous majorities that led to the school closure laws.

    Enter Leon Dure, a voucher activist living in Keswick just outside of Charlottesville. In 1958 at the outset of the school closures, Dure published a newspaper ad arguing that vouchers could be used to reopen schools facing court-ordered integration by offering a “safety valve” in which parents who wished to do so could move their children to other schools – public or private – on a state-funded tuition grant, or voucher. Dure’s plan came with an important legal twist though – in order to pass muster with the federal courts under Brown, the vouchers had to be made available to anyone for any reason – including non-segregationist uses.

    In mid February 1959, a coalition of political moderates on both sides of the segregation debate began to coalesce around the Dure plan. The program emerged from the legislative recommendations of the Perrow Commission, a special joint committee of 40 legislators tasked with revising the state’s education statutes after the court rulings. The voucher program passed in April with its support mainly coming from the political center. As a result, the schools would reopen against the wishes of the “massive resisters,” the federal court ordered integration could proceed, and any objecting parents could now use a voucher to move their children to another school (although so could any parent for any other reason).

    Back in Charlottesville, Battle recognized the state voucher program as an Achilles heal to his legal strategy. If white students left Venable or Lane for any reason, it would free up a seat in their classrooms that could then be filled by black students backed with a court order. Battle called this pattern the “negro engulfment” of the public schools and predicted that if it occurred, a vicious cycle of white student transfers would begin thereby defeating his backdoor strategy of preserving segregaton with zoning and enrollment caps. In short order, the schools would experience full scale integration.

    In a parallel twist, the local public school political interests – teachers unions, education bureaucrats, and their political supporters – recognized the vouchers as a threat to public education funding, much as these same interests do today. These conditions created a peculiar political alliance that has gone almost entirely unnoticed in the historical literature on desegregation. As the Perrow Commission debated the Dure plan, the school savers in Charlottesville mobilized with the segregationists in a desperate attempt to kill off vouchers.

    The “negro engulfment” argument caught the attention of one local school saver very early into the Perrow Commission proceedings. Hardy Cross Dillard, a UVA law professor, also served as the legal advisor to the Charlottesville Committee for Public Education (CPE), a mostly progressive-leaning group of public school interests that formed to counter the school closure policy of the Massive Resistance laws. The CPE officially took no formal stance on segregation – its literature stressed a desire to reopen the schools, whether integrated or not. Enough of its members agreed in principle with racial separation though that they were willing to form an alliance with Battle and the segregationists.

    Dillard himself is probably best understood as a moderate segregationist who believed in separate schooling but also recognized the constitutional validity of Brown and saw some form of integration as inevitable. His political aims therefore sought to slow the process on the grounds that the alleged “negro engulfment” would lower the quality of schools. He was also a voucher skeptic, and maintained a friendly but interlocutory back-and-forth with Dure over the course of several years. He was also well connected on the local political scene, and percieved as an authoritative legal voice on constitutional questions in Richmond – including segregation. To this end, Dillard directed the attention of the state’s attorney general Albertis Harrison to another contemporary federal district court ruling from Alabama, Shuttlesworth v. Board of Education. The court in this case upheld a narrow construction of an Alabama pupil placement system that allowed local officials to essentially restrict, but not completely block, the progress of integration.

    As Dillard explained in a letter dated January 26 – the same day as the emergency Charlottesville school board meeting that mapped out Battle’s plan – Shuttlesworth’s “utility for postponing indefinitely any engulfment is quite real…as I read Shuttlesworth, numbers are definitely controllable. By this I mean that whereas 1 or 2 negroes might not affect the prevailing academic standards, a larger number might.” This was essentially the legal theory on which the Charlottesville school district’s plan could be presented to the courts, even as it conceded some limited integration.

    While Battle filed his plan without stating a racial purpose, his public facing comments left no doubt where he stood. Newspapers across the state ran excerpts of two of Battle’s speeches on the “engulfment” threat – one to a Charlottesville PTA meeting on March 23, and a second to a school board meeting in Lynchburg a month later (for more on their contents see my earlier post here). Battle’s comments even offered other southern states a strategy to fight integration, provided that they could resist the temptations of school choice. A newspaper as far away as Hattiesburg, Mississippi quoted Battle’s warning of an “exodus” of white children from the public school system, if permitted by a voucher scheme, leaving the remainder in the hands of the integrationists.

    On the local level, Dillard added his own studied opinion of law to the case. “Mr. Dure’s plan should be rechristened,” he explained at a public debate over vouchers in Charlottesville on March 26. “He is not talking about the right of association. He is talking about the right of disassociation at public expense.” Dillard was trying to block the voucher threat to public school finance, but in the process he simultaneously assured his audience that “the best way out of our dilemma lies in a good faith, rationally administered [pupil] assignment plan.” This prescription conveniently mirrored Battle. Or as Dillard continued, it was “the surest way to preserve our public school system while avoiding the threat and actuality of engulfment.”

    Pleadings of this type were not mere rhetoric either. In addition to shaping segregationist policy through Battle’s enrollment cap and pupil zoning schemes, they also gained a friendly audience in Richmond in Del. Robert Whitehead, a Perrow Commission member and voucher skeptic from a neighboring county. Whitehead was a peculiar political creature – a public schools champion whose support for segregated classrooms almost matched his hatred for the Massive Resisters on the grounds that the threatened public education with the school closure stunt.

    Dillard wrote Whitehead shortly after his own speech at the school saver’s event to explain the logic of the “negro engulfment” argument. Although the law professor acknowledged the validity of Brown and even encouraged Whitehead to acquiesce to limited integration, he called his attention to “John Battle Jr., [who] has made a big point…viz. that setting up a competing “private” school system would accelerate engulfment by making it more difficult to administer a student assignment plan.”

    The Charlottesville CPE similarly took up Battle’s message, paying to reprint one of his speeches as a leaflet and disseminating thousands of copies to local residents by mail. Although they remained nominally noncommital to either side of the segregation issue provided that they could secure school funding and end the closure policy, the group also recognized immense PR value in tapping into segregationist voter sentiments. An internal strategy memorandum from around the time of Battle’s speeches reveals a conscious effort to strike an alliance with the segregationists. The memo warned of the publicity received by Dure’s “freedom of choice” plan and suggested it was an illusory solution to segregationists. Instead, the CPE should highlight the:

    “Other side of the picture – What happens if many children leave public schools for tuition supported private schools and the latter are declared unconstitutional? Great publicity has been given to the possibility of private state-supported schools. No publicity has been given to the possibility of containing integration, as outlined by John Battle, Jr.”

    The memo laid out a three-pronged plan to capture segregationist sentiments. First, they would launch a publicity campaign to promote public schooling over private alternatives through radio ads and op-eds in the Charlottesville Daily Progress. Second, and crucially, they would adopt a new message of “holding integration to the barest minimum possible,” apparently using the strategy advanced by Battle. Third, they would pressure community leaders to publicly declare their own patronage of the public school system. A bullet point on the memo hints the group even entertained the idea of targeting any parents who applied for a voucher by using the “influence of employers.”

    In the end, Battle’s strategy, the CPE campaign to promote it, and the support given to it by Dillard and Whitehead proved insufficient to derail the Perrow Commission’s tuition grant plank in Richmond. It passed with moderate segregationist support from parents and politicians who wanted the option to withdraw their kids from integrated schools, but the race neutrality of the statute – required to pass court muster – also made it available to other non-segregationist uses such as geography, school quality, and even a desire to transfer from segregated to integrated school districts. In fact, statistical evidence after a few years of operation would show that segregationist users of the voucher system were in a distinct minority.

    On the day of the formal vote, Whitehead acquiesced to the Perrow Commission report as a package deal to ensure the schools would reopen and remain so. He immediately turned on the voucher component and set out to restrict its use, giving a widely circulated speech at a CPE event in mid-May where he echoed all of Battle’s talking points.

    Curiously enough, Battle’s segregationist strategy continued to bear fruits in Virginia politics for the next several years. In late April 1959, the head of the Virginia Education Association (the still-segregated and all white public school teacher’s union) printed and circulated a copy of Battle’s speech to every public school superintendent in the state. In the following months the VEA mobilized as state’s most prominent critic of the new voucher program – and did so on explicitly segregationist grounds. Ignoring the law’s plainly written and constitutionally necessary race neutral scope, the organization spent the next five years lobbying the state government to restrict the program to segregationist uses only.

    It was this same line of segregationist anti-voucher agitation from VEA union officials that the Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy singled out and rebutted in a 1964 report on the performance of the voucher program after five years. The academic who supervised that report, of course, was James M. Buchanan.


    Collections Consulted:

    Robert Whitehead papers, Charlottesville Public School Board papers, Hardy Cross Dillard papers, and John S. Battle, Jr. papers, University of Virginia.


    Democracy in Chains and the problem of misrepresented documents

    Posted By on June 9, 2018

    In my last post I discussed an example of how Democracy in Chains author and Duke University historian Nancy MacLean conflated a pair of historical documents written two months apart from each other to levy unfounded segregationist insinuations against economist James M. Buchanan.

    Despite the relative abundance of footnotes in Democracy in Chains, MacLean’s work is marred by dozens of similar examples where she confuses, misquotes, or even misrepresents the contents of the documents she cites.

    One such example pertains to an excerpted quotation on page xvii of the introduction. Here MacLean quotes a 1956 document from Buchanan and suggests it is evidence that he bizarrely considered the segregationist political climate of mid-century Virginia to exemplify a society built on “the rights of the individual.”

    Several of MacLean’s academic defenders including economist Brad DeLong and historian John Jackson have credulously repeated this specific passage as “proof” that Buchanan exhibited an intellectual blind spot toward segregation, or possibly worse.

    There’s a problem with this claim though. The “rights of the individual” passage is yet another example of MacLean’s habit of misquoting and misrepresenting primary source documents.

    The passage derives from a December 1956 document in which Buchanan laid out the blueprint for the Thomas Jefferson Center for Political Economy, a free market research center he set up at the University of Virginia. The image below shows MacLean’s quotation of this document, followed by an image from the document itself for comparison.

    Note what MacLean does here. She quotes this passage as if it referred to the state of Virginia. From there she jumps to a very strong suggestion that Buchanan idealized the segregationist political system of 1950s Virginia as if it exemplified the “rights of the individual.”

    Contrast that with the actual document. Buchanan was actually referring to the University of Virginia rather than the state or, more specifically, state politics. Buchanan’s reference to “the rights of the individual” was a narrow and specific appeal to Jeffersonian political philosophy, which has a distinctive and well known historical connection to the University of Virginia. It bears no resemblance to the context in Democracy in Chains. Instead, MacLean simply makes that up out of thin air and supplies it around a heavily excerpted quote.

    This is why readers should not take any claim in MacLean’s book at face value. Misrepresented primary source documents are a pervasive fault of the book, and MacLean’s defenders such as DeLong and Jackson have rushed to the defense of some of her strongest claims without bothering to investigate the accompanying documents. Jackson in particular has asserted that “None of Maclean’s critics have even come close to showing why she’s wrong about this” specific passage.

    On the contrary. MacLean is wrong about this passage, and dozens others like it, because she blatantly misrepresents the contents of the document where it originated.

    On Nancy MacLean’s sloppy use of historical documents

    Posted By on June 6, 2018

    Jacobin Magazine recently put out a new podcast to promote Democracy in Chains by Duke historian Nancy MacLean. While the bulk of the episode simply repeats the conspiratorial claims found in MacLean’s book, it takes an interesting turn around the 27 minute mark when the host asks her to respond to her critics. While the host attempts to limit the focus to two of MacLean’s left-leaning critics, Henry Farrell and Steven Teles, MacLean quickly turns her ire to other unnamed critics of the book.

    Just past the 30 minute mark she takes up a topic that I have explored at length on this blog and in an accompanying research article – James Buchanan’s use of the phrase “letting the chips fall where they may” in reference to the 1959 school voucher debate in Virginia. A key chapter of MacLean’s book rests her use of this passage to accuse Buchanan of ethical negligence. She claims that “letting the chips fall where they may” illustrates Buchanan’s lack of concern about African-American students, who were shut out of the public school system by segregationist policies in an attempt to undermine Brown v. Board.

    As I documented previously on this blog, MacLean grossly misrepresents the content of this letter for the purpose of strengthening her unfounded contention of political collaboration between Buchanan and the segregationists. The phrase “letting the chips fall where they may” does not refer to African-American students, or any students for that matter. Rather, the full text of the letter (available here) reveals it is made in reference to the badly degraded state of the ongoing legislative debates in Richmond over the school desegregation crisis of 1959. Buchanan and his co-author Warren Nutter were, in effect, throwing up their arms in frustration at politicians – hence “letting the chips fall where they may.”

    Returning to the Jacobin podcast, MacLean attempts to offer a rebuttal to my post about this letter. Offering a new line of argument, she then claims that she found the letter in the papers of a segregationist legislator. I quote:

    “I think it’s also worth pointing out, because I think their case was so silly and based on such poor reading, that the legislator – and he sent it to multiple legislators – but the person whose papers I found the report in was the sponsor of five separate laws against the NAACP – to take away the NAACP’s first amendment rights.

    So when Buchanan writes to to a legislator who’s known in the news for spearheading that fight against the NAACP and says he’s “letting the chips fall where they may,” you know, my critics may still want to exculpate him but I think anybody who looks at the context and the evidence will see that I am right and that their effort is a rather pathetic quest to also deflect public attention from the crucial part of my book, which is how these ideas have been weaponized by the Koch donor network”

    She continues her digression from there by accusing me of misrepresenting the details of her book to “create smog” about her book’s arguments. Setting aside the ethical questions about MacLean’s own egregiously unscholarly behavior in addressing her critics, we may actually resolve the question about the “letting the chips fall” letter by turning to the sources themselves.

    Quite simply, MacLean has her facts wrong and is now likely conflating the contents of two separate letters in an attempt to refute my original criticism of her misuse of evidence. I’ll break it down to show you how, using the documents in question.

    First, a little historical background. In January 1959 two court rulings struck down a series of pro-segregation “Massive Resistance” laws in Virginia that were adopted to circumvent Brown by forcing the closure of public schools that were under integration orders. In the wake of the rulings, Gov. Lindsay Almond convened a 40 member special committee to revise the commonwealth’s now-unconstitutional public education statutes. The committee is commonly referred to as the Perrow Commission, after its chairman State Sen. Mosby Perrow. The Perrow Commission eventually enacted a race-neutral voucher system as part of a much larger legislative package. Although most members of the Perrow Commission were segregationists in principle, its deliberations also represented a crucial historical shift in Virginia politics. Led by Perrow, the political moderates gained a majority on the commmitee and backed away from the previous hardline segregationist stance of Sen. Harry Flood Byrd’s “Massive Resistance” movement. The new course they charted nudged the state toward gradual implementation of Brown, and – crucially – removed several of the “Massive Resistance” laws that the Byrd machine enacted over the previous three years.

    When Nutter and Buchanan drafted their school voucher paper in February 1959, they did so with the intention of circulating it to the Perrow Commission. Perrow had already indicated he was considering a voucher-like tuition grant system drafted by Leon Dure. The economists intentionally did not wade into the segregation issue, but instead confined their remarks to a narrow examination of the economics of school vouchers.

    Now let’s look at the documents in question.

    The legislator MacLean refers to in the podcast is almost certainly either State Sen. Charles Fenwick or Del. Harrison Mann, both segregationists from Arlington County who co-sponsored the anti-NAACP laws she mentions. MacLean claims the “let the chips fall where they may” letter was attached to Nutter and Buchanan’s article on school vouchers and, furthermore, that they sent this letter to Fenwick and/or Mann. This is simply not true.

    Fenwick and Mann were members of the Perrow Commission, and therefore received a copy of Nutter and Buchanan’s article dated February 13, 1959. A copy of the cover letter may be read here on the University of Virginia’s library website. Note that the letter to Fenwick says nothing about “letting the chips fall where they may.” Rather, it makes a very different claim as may be seen in the passage below:

    Furthermore, this letter was not specifically targeted to Fenwick or Mann as MacLean implies. Rather, it was a generic form letter attached to the Nutter-Buchanan paper. The economists used the same cover letter to circulate their report to the entire Perrow Commission.

    For example, I found a copy of it using identical text in the papers of Del. Robert Whitehead, another Perrow Commission member (and skeptic of the voucher idea). Whitehead’s records are housed at UVA as well, but they apparently went unnoticed by MacLean.

    MacLean is therefore in error on two counts: first, she misidentifies the contents of the Nutter-Buchanan letter from February 13. Second, she erroneously insinuates segregationist motives in sending it specifically to Fenwick and Mann, when in fact Fenwick and Mann only received it because they were members of the Perrow Commission.

    But there’s also a third error in MacLean’s handling of the documents in question, and that is the actual source of the “let the chips fall where they may” line. As my previous blog post on this passage noted, it comes from a different cover letter to the Nutter-Buchanan article that is dated April 1, 1959. Nutter and Buchanan attached this letter when they released their paper to the public. The copy I transcribed at my post, and that MacLean obtained the passage from in her book, is actually in the papers of Leon Dure, the aforementioned voucher activist who advised State Sen. Perrow on the resulting tuition grant program.

    So MacLean is not only misrepresenting the economists’ form letter communications with Fenwick and Mann to import segregationist motives to their stance, thereby poisoning the well against Buchanan. She’s also confusing the contents of two completely different letters written almost two months apart from each other. In doing so, MacLean has once again unintentionally illustrated her own deep confusions about the primary source materials she claims to have engaged in her book.



    The Decline of the Adjunct Workforce

    Posted By on May 28, 2018

    A little under three years ago I posted a brief comment about some stats I was compiling for an article on the higher ed workforce. The post investigated a myth that was popular at the time and remains so today, namely that adjunct employment had grown to encompass an astounding 76% of the higher ed workforce. The claim is empirically false on its face, and rests upon the conflation of adjunct, or part-time, faculty with all non-tenure track appointments. It nonetheless serviced a popular political slogan, suggesting that adjuncts were the “new faculty majority” and predicting the impending “adjunctification” of higher ed.

    My 2015 post cast doubt not only on this overall number, but the actual source of statistical trends. Adjunct employment had peaked in 2011 at near-parity with full time positions, but the most recent available statistics at the time – 2013 – hinted at the beginnings of a retreat in adjunct numbers. After digging a little deeper, I discovered that these trends were primarily being driven by an unnoticed source: for-profit higher ed.

    For-profit institutions use an almost exclusively adjunct faculty pool. It therefore followed that as the for-profit university sector boomed between the mid 1990s and 2011, adjunct hiring would follow suit. And it did. While adjunct use certainly grew elsewhere in this period, the single biggest contributor to the sector’s growth was for-profit higher ed. But in 2015, the for-profit sector was undergoing a contraction that has only intensified since then.

    So I made a prediction.

    Not only were we already past the adjunct workforce peak, but I further predicted that the total number of adjunct professors would continue to shrink in the wake of the for-profit contraction.

    This prediction and my other stats work quickly drew the ire of a cadre of adjunct union activists who were entirely uninterested in statistical analysis that ran counter to their political cause. It also prompted a particularly nasty article by Aaron Barlow of the AAUP, who falsely accused me of statistical misrepresentation. I confronted Barlow at the time about his charge, providing evidence that he was deeply mistaken. It turned out he was no more interested in an accurate or honest assessment of the stats than the adjunct activists of the twittersphere. Needless to say, my prediction was a lone voice on the subject in an activism-obsessed higher ed sector that had already concluded its error before even considering the evidence I brought to the table.

    The reason I bring this up is that the U.S. Department of Education released a report last week containing its most recent set of faculty workforce statistics, covering 2016. The stats fully bear out the continued decline I predicted 3 years ago. The adjunct workforce shed 30,000 jobs between 2011 and 2016, while full time faculty positions grew by 50,000. It also just so happens that the decline in adjunct jobs directly parallels the decline in the for-profit higher ed workforce.

    The AAUP would be wise to temper its activist rhetoric on the adjunct issue in light of this developing trend. For-profit higher ed has continued to contract since amidst ongoing accreditation and fiscal solvency problems, suggesting the decline will play out over several more reporting cycles.

    How communism affects the inequality U-curve

    Posted By on May 7, 2018

    U-curves are all the rage in inequality studies. Increasingly viewed as a global phenomenon, the distribitional U-curve attempts to show changes in top income and wealth shares over the course of the last century. In other words, it tracks the holdings of the top 1%, 5%, or 10% and so forth over time.

    The common story behind the U-curve is one of a great levelling in top income shares up to and including the World War II era, followed by a rebound that’s supposedly taken place since the 1980s and that manifests today in political claims about rising inequality. The posited causes for the movements on the U-curve are complex, but the levelling is usually attributed to some combination of disasters in the first half of the 20th century (two world wars, the Great Depression) and to specific policies (progressive income taxes, redistribution, and the modern welfare state). These causal claims are more often asserted than demonstrated, particularly on the fiscal policy side. As a result, the U-curve upswing since 1980 is almost always attributed to a resurgence of fiscal conservatism since the Reagan-Thatcher era that cut into the mid century’s highly progressive income tax structure. Tax hikes, by implication, then become a favored policy to reduce inequality among those who fret about its alleged rise in recent years.

    I’ve discussed the measurement problems with the U-curve elsewhere on this blog, but let’s assume for the moment that it reflects the past 100 years and there was indeed a “great levelling” at the mid-century mark. While scholars have focused almost entirely upon tax policy as a driver of this pattern in the United States and western Europe, one other factor on the world scene has received comparatively little study.

    Specifically, the rise and fall of communism, and particularly its totalitarian derivatives, appears to have precipitated a dramatic levelling in top income shares at the mid-century. The following chart, generated from the World Inequality Database, shows all currently available estimates for the top 1% income share from communist countries.

    The figure includes century long estimates for the Soviet Union/Russia and two eastern bloc countries, as well as evidence of the rebound since the 1970s in Poland and China. Note that the leveling effect in recorded top income shares is almost instantaneous with the adoption of communism. This much may be seen as well in Russia, which levels some 25 years before the rest of the world. The levelling/rebound pattern seen in the communist world is also atypically severe.

    Of course one purpose in my pointing this out is to show that measured income inequality is not an accurate representation of the distributional conditions of material well-being. During the mid-century period, practically all of the countries reflected on this chart were places of severe economic and political repression. Even as they appeared “equal” on paper, that equality entailed a race to the bottom – unless, of course, you were a member of the political elite and therefore enjoyed the non-income luxuries afforded to the communist party leadership. For the rest, communism entailed an equality of shared misery.

    Income inequality in the United States: it’s flatter than you probably realize

    Posted By on May 1, 2018

    Most economic discussions of inequality in the United States begin with a U-shaped curve. More specifically, they begin with historical estimates of top income shares (e.g. the top 10%, 5%, and 1%) as depicted in Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez’s famous 2003 paper on the subject. When these figures are displayed across the entire 20th century they look like a giant U. They show a period of relatively high inequality prior to World War II, followed by a massive levelling at the mid-century mark, followed by an inequality rebound that begins around 1980 and persists to this day.

    The Piketty-Saez estimates were a groundbreaking example of historical work that forms the basis for many subsequent studies of inequality today. They also suffer from data limitations, owing to problems of both accuracy and consistency in historical IRS records.

    For the past several months I’ve been working on an empirical project (along with Vincent Geloso, John Moore, and Phil Schlosser) that investigates some of these problems. In particular, we look at the portion of the U-curve where these data issues are most severe: 1917 to 1943. Our results produce a series of new estimates for top income shares in this period, accounting for a number of oversights, errors, and problematic adjustments that appeared in the original Piketty-Saez paper.

    We focus on three issues in particular, and offer corrections.

    The first one derives from the way(s) the IRS reported total income earnings prior to 1944, when it switched to a standardized accounting definition of Adjusted Gross Income (AGI). Think of AGI as your total earnings for the year, minus certain personal and work expenses that may be itemized on your tax form. Prior to 1944, the IRS tabulated tax returns a different way using “Net Income,” which is typically a smaller amount than AGI. The main difference between Net Income and AGI is that the latter includes several additional deduction-eligible income categories such as charitable contributions, interest payments on debt, and state and local taxes. What this means is that pre-1944 tax statistics generally undercount income relative to the AGI standards. As a result you have to harmonize the statistics from these years to get an apples-to-apples comparison with 1944 to the present day.

    Piketty-Saez took a shortcut to harmonize the two sets of numbers. They essentially guesstimated how much earners in each tax bracket deducted and adjusted them upward using a single stable multiplier that tiers up its deduction levels to the wealthiest earners. The problem with this adjustment is that taxpayers in the 1910s-1940s actually did not claim deductions at the same rates from year to year. There were even some shifting patterns in deduction rates between high and lower income earners. To correct this, we went back into the data files and extracted totals for the main AGI-eligible deduction categories. Since IRS records were sporadic, we had to estimate missing data in some years by imputation from partial data. Other years in this period have full records of deduction amount by tax bracket. The result is an improved data set that includes reported Net Income plus the main AGI-eligible deductions, and that reflects the year-to-year fluctuations in deduction patterns that are missing from the original Piketty-Saez guesstimation. We then use this improved series to re-estimate top income shares prior to 1944.

    Second, we corrected an error in one of Piketty & Saez’s adjustments to account for another recognized problem in the pre-1940 data. Until 1940, the income tax only applied to upper-middle class incomes and higher, but it did so at a distorted rate. Personal exemption levels varied depending on whether you filed as a married couple or a single filer. To account for the “missing” filers under the much higher married couple threshold, Piketty-Saez uses a ratio of married to single filers from after 1940 when the issue was no longer a problem due to expansions of the income tax base. Unfortunately, Piketty-Saez picked a poor year to calculate this ratio. They used 1942. The problem with 1942 stems from the United States’ entry into World War II, which also precipitated a large influx of young single male filers onto the tax roles as they entered into military service. As a result, any married filer adjustment using 1942 as its base ratio will tend to skew inequality upward in earlier years. To fix this problem, we calculated a new base ratio from 1941 (the U.S. did not enter the war until mid-December). This ratio is then used to generate multipliers to perform the necessary adjustment to our results from the first step.

    Third, we identified a further distortion in the Piketty-Saez calculations that comes from their selection of a suitable income denominator to actually run the calculations for top income shares. The denominator comes from national income accounts, and is not as much of an issue in recent years owing to standardized accounting practices and high quality data. The 1910s and 20s in particular are a different story, as formal attempts to estimate national accounts were just coming into existence back then. Simon Kuznets (who also pioneered national accounting in the 1930s) produced a denominator estimate in his own 1953 study of income inequality. Piketty-Saez reject Kuznets’ numbers though as being too high and offer a substantially lower denominator. This is a discretionary call, but we believe it is in error because they based it on a comparison with post-1944 tax data, after the aforementioned switch to AGI. This justification does not hold up as well before 1944 under the old Net Income standards used in tax reporting. We accordingly return to the Kuznets estimates and offer a range of plausible scenarios for selecting a denominator while estimating the pre-World War II years.

    When all of these adjustments are brought together, we end up with a substantially revised historical series for top income shares. We present a range of denominator options for comparison, but the effect is an across-the-board lowering of estimated inequality prior to 1944. For example, using a 90% Kuznets denominator base, the income share of the top 10% drops by roughly three to seven percentage points in most years. The only exception is an acute inequality spike in 1928-29, consistent with the stock market bubble and crash at the outset of the Great Depression. Our results still show an overall leveling trend between 1929 and 1945, but it is much more gradual than the sharp U-shaped drop depicted in Piketty-Saez.

    The next interesting implication of our new series is what it tells us about the century-long story. Since the publication of Piketty-Saez in 2003, other scholars have focused upon the accuracy of their income share estimates from 1980 to the present. One major point of contention revolves around the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which eliminated several tax shelter loopholes that were popular among the wealthy in the mid 20th century as ways to relieve their tax burdens. Piketty-Saez do not account for the effects of this tax code change on how wealthy persons reported their income. The result of this oversight may give the illusion of a more rapid rebound in the U-curve than actually happened. A new study by Gerald Auten and David Splinter offers a series of corrections to the Piketty-Saez series from 1960 to the present that account for this change in the tax code as well as other related scenarios that affect reported income shares. Their results generally flatten the depicted post-1980 upswing of the original U-curve, although they still show modestly rising inequality.

    So what happens when you combine the adjustments to the pre-WWII period and more recent times? The chart below depicts the century-long results (in our case using the 90% adjusted Kuznets denominator). The original Piketty-Saez U-curve may be seen in blue. Our pre-1944 revised figures are in red. And the most conservative adjustment by Auten & Splinter is in yellow.

    What they show is a century-long pattern that looks more like a tea saucer shape than a U-curve. In fact, the top 10% U.S. income share has remained in a fairly stable 10 percentage point range for the last 100 years, except for the brief aforementioned inequality spike leading up to 1929. If you take the cumulative effect of the adjustments into account, inequality patterns appear to be much flatter and less prone to fluctuation than what we previously believed.



    On the intellectual uselessness of a certain method of socioeconomic analysis

    Posted By on March 27, 2018

    A few brief observations:

    1. The Labor Theory of Value is incapable of functionally explaining even basic economic relationships. See Menger 1871.

    2. The notion that class identity functionally drives political or any other type of collective action is hopelessly incoherent and undermined by a pervasive free rider problem. See Olson 1965, Section IV.

    3. Even if one were to assume that the initial allocation of all property is by mere theft (and it is not), its effectual consequences are entirely subordinate to the question of whether property rights exist in the first place. See Coase 1960.

    4. The predictive ability of historical materialism in the ~150 years since its formulation is practically zero, although the cost of attempting to force its predictions into being is a hundred million bodies.

    5. In practice, the concept of alienation is indistinguishable from subjective emoting about things that the individual exhibiting “estrangement” envies, and envy is a difficult concept to defend as the basis of a system of social allocation as it reduces to little more than subjective valuation executed by forcible acquisition.

    Now note that one might still dispute if these particular observations are true. I’d entertain an argument as much, although they seem to be uphill battles if indeed the associated references hold. But let’s explore the implications by asking a question. Grant for a moment that the five observations are true. We may then ask what, exactly, remains of Marxist thought that is of any value in explaining anything?


    Abolitionists, Communists, and Jacobin magazine’s fake Jeff Davis quote

    Posted By on March 4, 2018

    One of the stranger recent currents in historical discussions around slavery involves an increasingly common attempt by scholars and activists on the far left to enlist historical abolitionists as ideological ammunition to the causes of anti-capitalism or even socialism. A primary motivating factor appears to be the so-called “New History of Capitalism” (NHC) genre of books by Sven Beckert, Ed Baptist and others who have all advanced arguments that portray capitalism and slavery as deeply intertwined and interdependent economic systems.

    The abolitionist extension of the NHC argument may be seen at several places in Manisha Sinha’s recent book The Slave’s Cause. While not a primary thesis of Sinha’s book, she does indulge the claimed link between abolitionism and anti-capitalism, citing the NHC literature. The argument as she presents it is a strange one, relying largely on a rhetorical sleight of hand that notes “if slavery is capitalism, as the currently fashionable historical interpretation has it, the movement to abolish it is, at the very least, its obverse.”

    Of course for that claim to be true, the currently fashionable NHC interpretation must first be accepted, and that remains a highly dubious proposition (for those interested, I critique this genre at length in What Is Classical Liberal History?, my new book with Michael Douma). But it is also wanting on another front. Establishing abolitionism as the obverse of capitalism requires – at minimum – some evidence of the abolitionists’ alleged hostility to capitalism.

    Abolitionism was a complex and multifaceted movement spanning not only multiple political factions but also several continents, so providing substantiation for the claim is no small task. It must also get around the unambiguous philosophical affinities for laissez-faire political economy that several of the more prominent abolitionist leaders incorporated into their philosophical systems (William Lloyd Garrison in the U.S. and Richard Cobden in Britain, for example, both had strong philosophical proclivities toward free market or laissez-faire economics). And finally it must also address the pronounced anti-capitalist undercurrents that many of the late antebellum proslavery theorists put forth as their own (see here in particular).

    A full discussion of these topics could probably fill an entire book, but one certain obstacle that the NHC reinterpretation of the abolitionists (as well as its more brazen variants among self-described socialist claimants of abolitionism) is a shortage of evidence in favor of the claimed link. One has to reach pretty deeply into the abolitionist barrel to find socialist adherents of the cause, and few if any of them had comparable stature to Garrison, Douglass, Sumner, Higginson or similar figures who operated more comfortably within classical liberal philosophical frameworks.

    To get around this problem, a fairly recent article in the far-left magazine Jacobin attempted to make the case for “ideological connections between abolitionism and socialism” by turning to abolitionism’s slaveholding critics to make their argument for them. The meandering piece offers very little in the way of historical context to substantiate its argument, preferring instead to assert it by declamation and pad it a bit with armchair intersectionality theory that supposedly demonstrates an overlapping of various social causes. But they also bolster this claim with a list of cherrypicked quotations from slaveholders.

    A pair of quotes come from the notorious pro-slavery theorist George Fitzhugh in which he ascribes socialist or communist monikers to his adversaries, albeit with very little context. This is done for a reason, as Fitzhugh himself is a poor witness to bring to Jacobin’s cause. They do so through selective editing, but only to omit the fact that Fitzhugh professed a radical anti-capitalist vision that trended strongly toward the philosophical tendencies of the reactionary socialist Thomas Carlyle. It was Fitzhugh who urged slave-owning southerners to “throw Adam Smith, Say, Ricardo & Co., in the fire” and who declared the theory of laissez-faire to be “at war with all kinds of slavery, for they in fact assert that individuals and peoples prosper most when governed least.”

    Although now deprived of Fitzhugh, Jacobin has a few more testimonials for its case. The most prominent remaining example by far is future Confederate president Jefferson Davis himself, or so it would seem. Jacobin’s author accordingly quotes Davis asserting that “the European Socialists, who, in wild radicalism, . . . are the correspondents of the American abolitionists” and proceeding to place them in league with the French socialist-anarchist theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The crusade against slavery, he continues, would “superinduce attacks on all property, North and South” and, presumably, lead to an ascendance of socialism in America.

    If no less than the president of the Confederacy declared that the abolitionists were in league with the socialists, then surely it’s a powerful case for not only the NHC genre but Jacobin’s own even more extreme spin in which the forces who stood against slavery also stood for socialist upheaval.

    But there’s a problem. The unsourced Jefferson Davis quote is not a Jefferson Davis quote at all. It’s actually a misattributed passage by Caleb Cushing, a Massachusetts politician and diplomat who sided with the Union during the Civil War. Cushing’s address was delivered at a meeting in Bangor, Maine on January 6, 1860 and reprinted shortly thereafter in the newspaper excerpt below:

    Where and how this passage received its misattribution is uncertain, as the Jacobin article gave neither a source nor even a date. The episode is nonetheless highly representative of the quality of the argument that article advances. Along with easily identified misrepresentations of Fitzhugh that obscure his avowed anti-capitalism, Jacobin‘s main evidence for a socialist-aligned “red abolitionism” comes down to a fake Jeff Davis quote.